With the opening night only a few days away, I spoke with Kurt Egyiawan who features in new play The Rise and Shine of Comrade Fiasco, about the background of the story, history and what modern audiences can learn from the topics of struggle.
In this play the audience are transported back to Zimbabwe in 1986, could you give our readers a little background to the story?
The story is around three characters who are put into a prison cell for some kind of drunk and disorder earlier that night. Whilst they are in this cell they encounter a fourth prisoner who has very mysterious origins. Zimbabwe had their independence in 1980 and they are living through the bureaucracy and stagnation – the paper trail world of 1986 Zimbabwe – a world masked in corruption and apathy; of bureaucracy and politicians selling lies. The story and the sense of it, particularly for my character, is that disappointment of having fought for something, but six years later it is not what they hoped it would be, and it is difficult to come to terms with the blood that has been spilled, the effort put in, the principles and things you believed in, now represented by a loss of hope. The writer does a good job of not talking too much about Mugabe and what comes later. It is not about a Zimbabwe under dictatorship.
But to take you back to the three characters in prison, the fourth one comes in, he is a freedom fighter who has been in a cave since 1979. He found himself lost from his platoon believing that the war was still going on. Seven years later in the prison cell, he thinks Zimbabwe is still fighting for independence and still ruled by colonialists and the [other] characters are trying to find out whether a) this is true, b) he is on their side, or an enemy. The complicated thing with Zimbabwe is that it wasn’t just a case of the Rhodesian army or Ian Smith’s colonialist army, vs. the freedom fighters and black natives of Zimbabwe. No, there were people fighting each other within the black freedom fighters. So this guy appearing in the cell – they are not sure whether he is friend or foe. Also they are dealing with somebody fighting for the things they once wanted… It is a really nice argument.
You play Chidhina – besides him being one of the prisoners, what is your character’s background story within this intense plot?
Yes, he is one of the prisoners, but he himself was a freedom fighter. He would have been on the frontline and fought for Zimbabwe’s independence in [the] 1980s and probably as a young man, still a teenager. His story is quite sad in that more than most of the other guys, he fought for these ideas, and what happens to a lot of these guys is they get the independence, but then they don’t find work or they are met with bureaucracy at every step. This leads to unemployment, apathy and the country is not what they fought for. He’s a very… not bitter, but an incredibly disappointed young man. It has somewhat aged him, this experience… he’s the voice of unrest.
How did you prepare in developing your character?
A lot of research, reading and watching documentaries about Zimbabwe and the very complicated history with politics. As it is with most of Africa, it is not simple. It’s looking back at the history from colonialism and then looking at the history of how ZANU–PF – a political party of freedom fighters, took on the colonialist party of Ian Smith. Looking at that history and looking at what happened to a lot of these young men, soldiers who were enlisted, fought and then basically once they had independence were forgotten about. They didn’t get any land, or a job afterwards and they didn’t get a Zimbabwe where they felt like things were on their side. For a lot of them it didn’t feel all that different from colonialism. Which is the core of his disappointment. It’s not naïve to fight for something that you believe in, but that’s close to how he feels.
Emotionally, have you been able to relate to Chidhina, if at all?
I think when you hear someone’s story like this and the way it’s beautifully written it’s not hard to have empathy. You put yourself in a position of giving your blood and your heart for a cause, for something that galvanised the whole country at one point. The other thing, don’t get me wrong war is always bad, but there is a lot in history that tells you that people feel this connection with each other in times like that, because often it’s not just about the self, there’s a higher cause. I think that transcends you to another place as a person, if you feel like your life is more than just the sum of you.
It is emotionally and physically draining, especially as a young man…
Exactly, as a young man who feels robbed of his dreams and hope… it’s quite sad to see… I think it would have been a different play if the character was a bit older. We often get that with older people having a deep regret about their past, but I think it’s even more hard to see such pessimism from a young person, I mean it takes something to quench the positivity of youth like that.
How have the rehearsals been?
Really exciting; it’s such a lyrical play and when you get a bit of material like this, it’s also a bit of an unknown. It’s the kind of play where there could be several different versions of it; it’s up to the group of people creating this world. Andrew Whaley, the writer, has really made that available to us, to kind of build these worlds. There’s a lot to do with memory, imagination, kids involved – so adults playing kids. It’s got a lot of potential creativity which means an awful lot of hours trying things out, scrapping them, creating new ideas, seeing what works and what doesn’t, different drafts of things, which takes up a lot of time, but it is also good fun. The cast is fantastic. It’s a tricky play because we are all on stage all the time in this very small space being the prison cell, so it means real focus and understanding with each other.
As mentioned the play delves into the struggles of liberation, issues of war, imprisonment and freedom fighting – how do you think modern day audiences will take this message?
What’s great about this play, with politics aside; it’s very much about hope and disappointment of hope. At the heart of it, it’s not just a Zimbabwean story and I think it’s easy for an audience and us as British actors, to understand this message of having hope and disappointment.
You’ve been building a wide-ranging theatre and film credit list with quite a lot of Shakespeare and old theatre – how does this play differ?
I think it’s very epic because it has these big ideas and especially in the way we do it. It’s very intimate because it is in a prison cell and it’s about these broken characters and their loss; Zimbabwe’s loss…you get a specific, intimate journey from each of them. You often feel like a writer is really getting a platform in theatre. The words are so much more important than in other mediums and you as an actor get to be a vessel to communicate these big and intimate thoughts and that’s really engaging for me…when you get to say something that is worth saying! It’s an honour to communicate the thoughts of somebody else.
Do you have any advice for those looking to break into the industry?
Advice isn’t something to be giving out flippantly. I always encourage people to make it part of their life – acting – I’m talking about whether it’s weekend classes or courses or putting on something with friends, I’ve had a lot of that in my life and that’s what gave me a lot of enjoyment and fulfilment from it. It’s too tough, too demanding and too competitive to think of it as just a career. It needs to be more than that because there are times when you are not working or when you are not making a lot of money. What am I getting out of it? It’s a good question to ask yourself before you dedicate so much time and energy into something big.
Kurt Egyiawan will be featuring in the co-production between Paul Jellis and the Gate Theatre, in association with the National Theatre Studio: The JP Morgan Award for Emerging Directors production, The Rise and Shine of Comrade Fiasco, which opens from the 26th February – 21st March 2015.
For more information and to book tickets, please go to the Gate Theatre website